BEALE AIR FORCE BASE, CA – As a child, Air Force Lt. Col. Merryl
Tengesdal imagined flying among the stars, thousands of miles above
the Earth's surface.
Today, she is one of eight female pilots
ever to fly the U-2 high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft and the
only black female pilot in U-2 history.
A Bronx, New York,
native, Tengesdal also is the 9th Reconnaissance Wing inspector
general, and she was recently was selected for promotion to colonel.
Air Force Lt. Col. Merryl Tengesdal stands in front of a U-2 at
Beale Air Force Base, Calif., Feb. 9, 2015. Tengesdal is the only
black female U-2 pilot in history. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior
Airman Bobby Cummings)
"I have seen the curvature of the Earth," Tengesdal said.
"Flying at more than 70,000 feet is really beautiful and
peaceful. I never take it for granted."
Aug. 1, 2015
will mark the 60th anniversary of the U-2, making it one of
the few aircraft to operate in the Air Force for more than
"The Air Force has always been on the
forefront of breaking aviation and racial barriers," she
said. "I am extremely proud of being the first black female
U-2 pilot in history."
High-altitude Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance
The U-2 provides high-altitude intelligence,
surveillance and reconnaissance in direct support of
national objectives. The aircraft enables the capture of
imagery and delivers intelligence to decision makers
These missions often are
at altitudes of about 13 miles. Pilots are required to wear
full pressure suits during flight, similar to those
astronauts wear. That suit, along with a specialized helmet
and the U-2's bicycle landing gear make it arguably the most
difficult aircraft to land.
"Every aircraft I've
flown has something unique," Tengesdal said. "The U-2 is no
exception. I enjoy the challenge of landing on two wheels."
No Stranger to Challenges
Tengesdal is no stranger to challenges. The colonel
acknowledged that her childhood featured many opportunities
for her to stray down the wrong path.
alcohol were prevalent in my hometown, but I was influenced
to pursue other aspirations," she said.
With guidance from her mother
and teachers, she said, she excelled in high school,
particularly in math and science. After high school, she
attended the University of New Haven in Connecticut and
graduated in 1994 with a bachelor's degree in electrical
engineering. Afterward, she attended the Navy's Officer
Candidate School, commissioned as an ensign in September
1994, and attended flight training shortly after.
"During the mid ‘90s, the military had just begun opening
more roles for women in combat," Tengesdal said. "Combat
pilot was one of the opportunities. There was also a massive
push for more minorities into the pilot training program. I
remember when I attended flight training. It was racially
diverse, which I was surprised to see. It was a good
feeling. However, I could tell there were a few people who
did not appreciate us."
From Seahawk Helicopters to U-2s
aircraft she flew was the Navy's SH-60B Seahawk helicopter,
used for anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue,
anti-ship warfare and special operations. She loved the
versatility of the aircraft and its capabilities.
In 2004, Tengesdal followed her dream
of flying higher and cross-commissioned into the Air Force,
joining less than 1,000 pilots wo have been part of the U-2
U-2 pilot training is a rigorous
nine-month course. Every candidate must conduct training
missions aboard the TU-2S, a dual-seat trainer aircraft.
After a solo high flight as a final challenge of their
training, pilots are often deployed around the world.
Tengesdal has been deployed to multiple locations and
has flown missions in support of Operation Olive Harvest, in
Afghanistan and in Iraq. She also aided in preventing
terrorism and piracy in the Horn of Africa.
incredibly fortunate. It's surreal," Tengesdal said. "From
my time in the Navy to my experiences in the U-2 program, I
like to think I've played a part in helping some of the
troops on the ground get home safely."
More than 330 Combat Hours
Throughout her career, Tengesdal has
logged more than 3,400 flight hours and more than 330 combat
hours. "I have been truly blessed to have experienced all I
have during my time in the military," she said.
has flown at the edge of space and witnessed a shooting star
from the inside of a cockpit. She achieved what no
African-American woman ever had before.
"It is very
uncommon, even for this day and age, to be a female pilot,
much less a female minority," Tengesdal said. "My career
field is very male dominated, but I hope I have helped other
females with similar aspirations to realize this is an
option. I think we are all limitless as to what we can
By U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Bobby Cummings
Air Force News Service
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